I’M GREATLY SADDENED by South Africans who loot shops owned by foreign nationals around the country. What troubles me more is that the perpetrators of these criminal acts are young people in their twenties, judging by the pictures I see on television and the articles I read on various news outlets.

Given this reality, I think it’s time we calm ourselves, think and ask these two questions: What motivates these young people to go around assaulting foreign nationals, looting their shops? The second question is: Who exactly is to blame for the chaos?

These are very crucial questions, of which the answer will guide us to finding the best solution to address the issue that tarnishes the image of our Rainbow nation.

WHAT MOTIVATES THESE YOUNG PEOPLE TO LOOT SHOPS?

It’s hard for me to come up with the answer as to what exactly motivates these young people to commit these thuggish acts; but my guess is that even though it may partly have to do with arrogance, disrespect and bad mentality; it also has to do with the fact that many of them are unemployed. Youth unemployment is one of the factors in this chaos you see in Soweto, Diepsloot, Kagiso, the West Rand and many other areas around the country – perhaps the major factor.

I suggest so because I just cannot imagine the employed person looting people’s shops in broad daylight, on a working day, engaging in vandalism out of hatred for foreigners. Many of these looting incidents take place during the week; so I doubt a sane working person, with bills to pay, would sacrifice his working hours for the opportunity to loot two-litre cold drinks, packs of cigarettes and airtime.

These attacks on foreigners always happen in low income, poor black communities where government fails to deliver, be it on security, creating an environment that fuels private job creation, basic services such as consistent availability of electricity and clean water. It’s communities whose citizens are unemployed. I have never heard of xenophobic attacks in the affluent suburbs of Fourways, in Sandton, in Northgate suburbs where I live ; yet all these places are filled with foreigners from all over the world, who have come to search for a better life; that alone explains a lot.

WHO’S TO BLAME? THE GOVERNMENT OR PERPETRATORS OF THE LOOTING?

I personally think it would be unwise to blame only one of the mentioned parties. The government and these inept thugs are to blame for this misbehavior we see in the affected townships. But where exactly is the root source of the problem? It’s at government.

When I was a student at Rhodes University, I once dined with Wandile Hlophe, one of my former classmates, at Founders Hall. He said something that I have never ever forgotten, and that has made me think many times. He said that one of the biggest mistakes that were made by the South African post-apartheid government was to promise its citizens so much, that they (South Africans) decided to lay back and expect government to provide almost anything to them. Yes it was a mistake.

Whether Wandile would today stand by his words is another question.

Obviously, our government failed to preach President John F. Kennedy’s following famous words:

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

In my thinking, the major culprit is government. In every angle you look at this issue, you realize that government is the source of the problem. It continues to encourage a society with growing class of parasites living off those who produce. Our government has created a society where citizens believe they are entitled to other people’s assets. We do not only see this with the ongoing assaults on foreigners, but also during trade union strikes, where our people say “It’s either the employer pays us the wage we demand, or his entire premises will be torched”. That’s insane. No that’s not how it works; because the workers are not entitled to the employer’s physical and financial assets.

One of my friends argued that we shouldn’t blame everything on government because there was a time when our grandparents were unemployed and disenfranchised by their state, but they never resorted to looting shops. Well, she was right, there was that time; and that time was marked by uncertainty, fear, oppression by racist governments. There was no sense of entitlement to other people’s assets as we see today.

The sense of entitlement has been produced by government who has, over the past twenty years, sided with one class of our society, most notably, the trade unions who always decide the fate of our economy. These unions claim to be speaking on behalf of the poor , those who have nothing – which is utterly false.

What helped our grandparents the most, in addition to the fact that the then governments had not promised them grants, was the fact that they lived in families with values and principles that taught respect to other people and their assets. The way of living under the oppressive regimes inspired them to mold strong, well-behaved families; because anything opposite of that would endanger their future. So they could not resort to looting at all. Fast-forward to today, there is no self-respect and respect for other people which produces the chaos we see in our townships. Teenage pregnancy is rife, partly because government has promised us social grants should we have children.

Of course we don’t have to live in fear as our grandparents did in order for us to be better people who value honesty, integrity, respect, with ambitions. The point here is that what inspired our grandparents to mold strong families with reputation, was the fact that the racist governments ostracized them, with no intervention in their lives. Today, when government has gotten more involved in our lives, our country slips into chaos, with threats to property rights, high rates of teenage pregnancy, endless union strikes due to the sense of entitlement, and so on. These days many of us in our townships can impregnate as many women as they want, the government will provide. How sad.

OUR GOVERNMENT IS TERRIBLE ON ITS IMMIGRATION POLICIES

On top of the mess bequeathed by the apartheid regimes, our government failed to adopt immigration policies that serve our national interests; for example, to ensure that it only opens borders for foreign qualified, talented people to enter this country. These people could be medical doctors, academic professors, engineers, businessmen, accountants, lawyers and students who study towards post-graduate qualifications. This is the talent this country needs to bolster its economic productivity. These are the only people this country should accept. We should lock our doors for unskilled laborers who mostly cross the border illegally to look for a better life.

The reason we have to tighten our borders isn’t because we hate foreign unskilled workers, it’s because we already face a massive shortage of skills in this country. In my opinion, we have to reserve low-skilled jobs for low-skilled South Africans. Of course a Somali man who takes an opportunity and starts a tuck shop at the township doesn’t take anyone’s job; he’s an investor. But we have to be aware of the fact that this is much bigger than tuck shop start-ups by foreigners, it goes further to the fact that there are many South Africans who find it hard to see themselves being replaced by immigrants who are willing to accept even lower wages from employers. Well, that’s the nature of capitalism. Too much availability of low-skilled labor will lower the price – it’s basic economics – which is good for the employer who will spend less on wages, cut the costs and grow his business.

THE WAY FORWARD

In the short and long term, the right thing to do by South Africans is to integrate immigrants within their communities. Foreigners who come here to start small businesses contribute to the well-being of our society. They benefit, we benefit.

South Africans need to understand that. It frustrates me to see people who are supposed to protect us from crime, the police, stand watching immigrants being attacked. There have been many such cases reported. Some of the politicians who are supposed to pass the message of unity make crazy statements that further fuel hatred towards immigrants.

I’m not an anarchist, I believe we need government. In this case we need government to adopt strategic immigration policies that serve the interests of this country. Lure skilled people from all over Africa to be part of this Rainbow nation. Incentivize foreign students to stay in this country after the completion of their post-graduate studies, while we tighten our borders for the less-skilled immigrants. This I believe will address the problem over the long-term.

Government must, as I have said many times, create an environment that fuels private job-creation – through deregulation of the labor market, abolish unnecessary licence requirements for starting a business, stop duck-hunting with trade unions, give decent education to black teenagers in poor communities, and so much more that will help in stopping these people from looting shops and stealing cold-drinks and cigarettes. They need jobs to better their lives. In other words, capitalism and strategic immigration policies are the ways to a solution. I think these are the most important things that must be done by government.

Clearly there are many parties to blame on the looting of shops owned by foreign nationals; I personally think that, from every angle, the source of the problem is government. Our government has done much harm to this country. Almost every problem we face has been caused by government’s irrational policies. Yes these thugs have to be blamed and reprimanded, but they are motivated by government’s post-apartheid policies, to engage in these despicable criminal acts. Therefore this means if you were to go about fixing the problem, you would have to first start by looking at the shortcomings of our government’s policies, be it on economics or immigration. I just wish we did not need government to solve this issue, because anything with government’s involvement, may remain unresolved forever. But unfortunately we do need our government to secure those borders, we do need our government to abolish labor regulations that hurt the unemployed and produce the chaos we see in townships. This country does have potential to succeed, but its society will be destroyed by policies that produce young, arrogant, desperate, irrational, unemployed people who loot other people’s shops. When we’ve lost all the traits of the Rainbow nation, we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Phumlani M. UMajozi is a Professional Business Analyst, a Policy Analyst at Independent Entrepreneurship Group, and Youth Coordinator at Free Market Foundation South Africa.